More Dogs on Main Street
May 20, 2006
I think it was Winston Churchill who observed that there was nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at without result. I haven’t experienced that, but dodging a tornado has to be pretty close. I spent a few days last week on the annual Tom-Dick-and-Harry mountain bike trip. This is something like the 16th year, and we decided to do the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands again. Through a lot of confusion, the group was not the usual suspects. Dick was unavailable on account of becoming a Mormon Bishop and needing to be on the job on Sunday. Harry was attending his daughter’s college graduation, after only six or eight years as a senior — he wasn’t about to miss that occasion. So we called in Auxiliary Harry from Ketchum and a bunch of others and headed south.
The White Rim is one of the most serene places on earth. It’s harsh desert country, and can be terribly hot, and also terribly cold. Storms out there are pretty unforgiving. But on a spring evening, with the sun setting the red cliffs on fire, and the snow-capped La Sals off in the distance, there are few places like it. It is so isolated that you feel like you are the only people on Earth. It cleanses me in ways that are hard to describe, but necessary every now and then.
So we are sitting in camp after a little longer day than expected. Nobody is in a big hurry to get things set up. It’s hot enough that tents would offer no relief, and may be even worse than sitting out in the sun. The truck is unloaded and stuff is kind of scattered around. Before long, we are watching a dust devil play on the cliffs across a little gully from camp. As dust devils go, this was pretty serious. It moved up the cliff face and hit a ledge, then began hurling slabs of sandstone the size of phone books around. Not Park City phone books, but real phone books from big cities. Yellow Pages.
The rocks being thrown around shattered like china on the cliffs for a few seconds, and then the dust devil would sink back down to the valley floor and almost become invisible but for a little dust. Then it would mount the cliff face again in a slightly different place, hurl another cubic yard of rocks around, and drop out of sight. It was great fun to watch it. It almost looked like it was playing a game with the cliff face. So we watched it as we distributed camping gear and started setting up tents and lawn chairs.
Then the dust devil made an unexpected assault on the cliff, bounced off in a new direction, and came right for camp. Rocks, weeds, dust and a violent wind came right for us. We all sat there watching it, safe in our knowledge that there are no tornadoes in Utah — one of many lies our grade school teachers taught us, right there up with we would be safe under our desks when the Russian nukes were raining down upon us. When it hit, it scattered everything. Lawn chairs, bike helmets, any clothing not actually on somebody, beer coolers, tables and a tent with me sitting in it. It all went rolling, flying or got flattened.
Two of the people on the trip have large motor homes. The vehicles weren’t out there on the White Rim with us, but you could tell that the tornado knew who owned trailers and who didn’t. It went right for them.
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After what seemed like a very long time, it passed over, and we started collecting gear scattered over about 10 acres. I had clothes zipped into a duffle bag, zipped inside a tent. There was sand in the pockets of the pants. There was enough sand in my ear to grow vegetables. And once it left, there wasn’t the slightest hint of wind. The strange thing was that there was no residual dust in the air. It was back to that perfect afternoon in the desert.
I suppose there are scientific distinctions between a tornado and a dust devil. But when it is lifting your tent off the ground, with you in it, and you begin to hear the Munchkin Land song, it’s a distinction without a lot of difference. I’m here to tell you it was exhilarating.
After five days of being completely out of touch with the world (aside from being so incredibly in touch with the desert, the winds, the sun and nearly-full moon, the lizards on the trails, cactus in bloom, the smell of the river when we drew near, and the ferocity of the just-hatched mosquitoes) we couldn’t wait to buy a newspaper on the way home. Had Karl Rove been indicted? Ken Lay convicted? Bush impeached? Congress done anything productive? Are we still being greeted as liberators in Iraq? I get violently car sick if I try to read in the car, so I drove and my friend read the headlines. The one that summed it all up was "Markets Fall on Financial Jitters." That’s about as insightful as saying "Thermometers Plunge on Cold Wave."
For a group that is mostly very, perhaps overly, in touch — reading newspapers, watching several news shows, listening to NPR, and on and on — five days without news seemed like an eternity. But when push came to shove, we hadn’t missed a thing. But I saw the desert with a full moon, lived through a tornado, ran out of whisky, blew a lot of sludge out of the arteries, and made several new friends. A pretty satisfying effort.
We drove home the back way, up 191 from Helper to Duchesne, then over Wolf Creek to my house. There were about a dozen other cars on the road in all that distance, making for a relaxing drive home, watching spring breaking out at the higher elevations, and not caring about a whole lot else.
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